Fantasy, for many, is nearly synonymous with the pleasure of escape. And yet fantasy writers often deploy the genre’s recognizable tropes and elements as the means their protagonists use to perform serious emotional work, work like grieving and healing.
Zoë Landale’s The Rain Is Full of Ghosts (Tesseract Books, 2000) opens with a scene of crisis for its protagonist, Ingeborg, in which the key to the novel’s fantasy dimension, a Canada goose the narrative calls “the Family Ghost,” makes its first appearance. This fantastic creature, we immediately learn, is embodied; it “waggles its bottom, deposits a slimy turd on [Ingeborg’s] immaculate porch,” causing Ingeborg to scold, “for an angel, or whatever, you’re an awful messy creature” (1). Ingeborg chafes against the Family Ghost’s goose- ness—against its demands for food (and, indeed, its preferences for the most expensive bird seed), its attention to its feathers, and its habit of careless defecation.
A goose, of course, is a bird, as the narrative emphasizes through Ingeborg’s constant effort to see more of the trajectory of the Family Ghost’s flight than its take-offs and landings. In several fairy-tale traditions, birds play special roles, ranging from incarnating the souls of (dead) human beings, to delivering helpful or warning messages (often from “beyond”), to meting out vengeance. Ingeborg tends to regard her goose as an emissary from her dead family members. And the Family Ghost from page one acts as Ingeborg’s confidant and moral conscience. But the Family Ghost’s role in the narrative is considerably more complex than that. Landale skillfully plays out the revelation of the Family Ghost’s place in the narrative’s cosmic reality, making the reader’s interest in piecing together the novel’s fantasy logic a powerful force driving the narrative.
Ingeborg’s first conversations with the Family Ghost concern Ingeborg’s unintended pregnancy, which she longs to carry to term but her boyfriend Tony insists she terminate. Deeply torn, she chooses her life with Tony over the pregnancy. She and Tony have been a working team as well as a couple. They have shared a home, and they have shared the work on Tony’s fishing boat. In the wake of the abortion, an angry and resentful Ingeborg realizes that although Tony took her (unpaid) labor as crew for granted (a “natural” perq, as it were, of their personal relationship), his interest in protecting his sole ownership of the boat precludes, in his mind, the possibility of their ever raising children. While she had perceived herself as working with Tony to advance their shared interests as a couple, Tony had been regarding himself as the sole proprietor of a business generously supporting his girlfriend. Her anger drives her to leave Tony—demanding a portion of what she now regards as back pay—and return to crewing on other fishing boats.
Although to please Tony, Ingeborg has an I.U.D inserted into her uterus immediately after the abortion, she nevertheless gets pregnant the very next time she has sexual intercourse, which is not with Tony, but with Pete, who is married and has two boys. When she bears the child, Pete hears from the labor nurse that he is the father and re-enters her life, and the two of them awkwardly work to make themselves and the three children a family.
Throughout, Ingeborg talks privately to the Family Ghost, which ceaselessly asks her questions intended to help her think about who she is and what she is doing. As an immigrant (Danish, of a highly educated family) living among working class Vancouver Islanders, she is often caught up in misunderstandings or conflicts due primarily to the difference in her cultural and moral values. Since her life tends to be difficult and complicated, her temper short, and her immediate emotional responses unthinking, this aspect of her relationship with the Family Ghost seems obviously rooted in Ingeborg’s immediate present and the future. And yet the Family Ghost’s most important function is to help Ingeborg recollect the family she has left behind, both in memory and in flesh.
Significantly, the key to her trauma lies in the special talent she shares with her father. The Family Ghost facilitates the recovery by taking Ingeborg into landscapes beyond the mundane world. If this is a private fantasy in the sense that only she can perceive and experience it, it is a fantasy of work, not pleasure, with nothing self- indulgent or solipsistic about it.
Ingeborg is an ordinary human being whose only fantasy-related task is to heal herself. While some readers might find such a use of fantasy too quiet and limited, the exceptional attention to social and physical detail in the narrative and the psychological complexity of its protagonist makes this a far from ordinary novel. The gritty depiction of small-boat fishing off Vancouver Island in the 1970s is detailed with the exactitude with which work is described in fine science fiction and is so sensually evocative that readers will very nearly experience through their mind’s hearing, smell, and touch Ingeborg’s life working as crew. Moreover, the novel so deftly renders both the Vancouver Islanders’ and the Danish-accented Ingeborg’s speech rhythms that, as I read, I placed their voices as distinctive and local (rather than the usual generic). But the novel’s subtle attention to the conditions and discourse of the setting’s social and economic structures impressed me most.
Ingeborg engages me deeply as a character, so deeply, in fact, as to have given me the first glimmering of understanding of baffling, often exasperating young women I’ve known who’ve behaved as she does; but my engagement with such a protagonist hinges on the narrative’s intricate embedding of the character in a life of work, conflict, and a complicated economic and social milieu. Her healing may be a prerequisite for her making the kind of life she so desperately wishes to create yet is necessarily interwoven with her struggle with the immanent details of that life. Healing, the novel seems to be saying, is not a matter of transcendence.
The best fantasy works far beneath the narrative surface. And so with The Rain Is Full of Ghosts, with the emphasis definitely on work. This is a novel well worth the reader’s effort.
This review first appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, September, 2003.